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More delays for Produce Safety Rule as industry balks over water testing

Water testing standards that are a key part of the produce safety requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are undergoing a quiet review that could extend the compliance date for the Produce Safety Rule beyond January 2018.

Produce industry leaders learned  in mid-February during a meeting with U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials led by acting FDA Commissioner Stephen Ostroff that they’d be getting the review with the likely delay in compliance.

strawberriesinrain_406x250Attendees at the meeting included: Lance Jungmeyer (Fresh Produce Association of the Americas); Alice Gomez, Bob Whitaker, Jim Gorny (Produce Marketing Association); Sonia Salas (Western Growers); Kate Woods (Northwest Horticulture Council); Jennifer Dougherty, Leanne Skelton (United States Department of Agriculture; Beth Oleson, Charles Hall (Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association); Jill Dunlop, Martha Roberts, and Mike Aerts (Florida Fruit and Vegetables Association).

Also present were: Bob Ehart, Joe Reardon (National Association for the State Departments of Agriculture); Scott Horsfall (Leafy Green Marketing Agreement); Jeff Hall, Sally Blackman (Canadian Produce Marketing Association); Sophia Kruszewski (National Sustainable Coalition); Bret Erikson (Texas International Produce Association); Jennifer McEntire (United Fresh); and Chris Valadez (California Fresh Fruit Association).

Sean Gilbert, general manager of Gilbert Orchards in Yakima, WA, told the Capital Press, an agricultural news service, that the January 2018 compliance date for the Produce Safety rule  will likely be extended because of the review of the water quality requirements.

FDA’s review is apparently going to extend beyond the water quality section of the Produce Safety rule due to industry opposition.  In addition to water quality, the produce industry has registered concerns about packing house regulations being too vague and confusing in addition to being unclear about which rules apply to certain operations.

Gilbert recently testified in front of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research. The Yakima grower said water testing requirements should be risk based and reasonable. As written, he said water testing requirements are “burdensome.”

Up until now, FDA has defended the water testing included in the rule while pricey, has  a big payback in food safety. Samir Assar, Ph.D., director of the Division of Produce Safety, has responded to questions about the rule that are published on FDA’s website. Here’s how Assar responded, before the review got underway, on the cost question:

“We believe that the cost of testing is justified based on the significant risk that agricultural water poses as a source of contamination and foodborne illness. FDA estimates that agricultural water provisions, as written in the final rule, will cost approximately $37 million dollars annually, which represents an average cost to a single farm of approximately $1,058 per year.

“The agency anticipates the final rule will bring about a reduction of over 60 percent in the risk of contamination from agricultural water, or a reduction of about 20 percent in the total number of foodborne illnesses associated with produce, with a corresponding reduction of $477 million in the costs of foodborne illnesses.”

The review and subsequent delay means growers likely will be tapping into a $60 million fund before they have to comply with FSMA.   That’s because compliance is slowing down, but USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) is anxious to get moving on its new Specialty Crop Block Grant  Program.

The deadline for the states to apply for the money was moved up one month to June. 7.   The money “is available” to support farmers growing fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and nursery or specialty crops.

USDA says grants (money that does not have to be paid back) “are managed cooperatively with state departments of agriculture and support projects including research, agricultural extension activities, and programs to address the needs of America’s specialty crop industry.”

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